Sour on the singer-songwriter set? A pair of new releases bring the sweetness.
Does the phrase ‘singer-songwriter’ conjure up visions of overly-sensitive, overly-prim young men sitting on steps yodeling about their innermost secrets and fill you with dread? Yeah, me too. Thank God Belushi always comes long and smashes the bee-jeezus out of the guy’s guitar.
(Good God, I’ve only just discovered that this is an actual song!)
Oh well, it was a different era and it paved the way for things that came later, not all of them my cup of hemlock. I’m looking at you, JT.
Anyway, don’t let my rock and roll tunnel-vision deter you from seeking out the artists addressed below for they are two very different kinds of singer-songwriter, inhabiting and utilizing two very different universes.
Vic Chesnutt, a Georgia native, first breached the collective musical conscious in 1990 with the release of his first solo record, Little, produced by REM frontman Michael Stipe. Spare and mournful, he was not without a sense of humor. Check out the description of his heroine in “Soft Picasso”, a biting but still sympathetic commentary on modern romance – she could have anything she fancied and she fancied quite a bit.
One can easily see a trajectory of sorts from the earlier recordings, stark, lean affairs, mostly just Vic and his guitar with the occasional keyboard or fiddle flourish to later, more ornate records, sometimes with full bands and broader sounds. All featured Chesnutt’s awkward yet perfectly constructed songs and mordant worldview sung in his unchanging southern twang, media attention and increasing cultural impact notwithstanding; you might recall the second volume of the Sweet Relief series which featured covers of his songs by such luminaries as Smashing Pumpkins, REM and Madonna.
A quadriplegic since an automobile accident at age 18, Chesnutt was sardonic but not unrelentingly dour, his live performances filled with self-mocking references to his own misfortunes as well those of the characters in his songs. Sometimes, it was difficult to tell where the characters ended and Chesnutt began: Whatever happened to those fluid movements/You were so proud of in the intimate moments? he sang in “Withering” from 1991’s West of Rome. Plaintive guitar picking highlights “Aunt Avis”, a plea for the strength of his antecedents. The tension is often palpable with a hint of violence but only against himself, harbingers that would eventually come true.
Like Lucinda Williams, ostensible subject of his song by the same name, Chesnutt fell somewhere into the chasm between country/folk and rock & roll. Pedal steel guitar features prominently and beautifully on “The Gravity of the Situation” but it would never have been played on Nashville-centric radio or the alternative rock stations of the early 90s.
Sadly, Chesnutt died on Christmas Day, 2009, likely the result of his own hand. New West Records is reissuing his first four albums, originally released through Texas Hotel, the fine label that also brought you such diverse offerings as the Henry Rollins band and Poi Dog Pondering, AND two of Chesnutt’s latter day recordings. They are worth seeking out.
On the other end of the singer-songwriter spectrum is Sam Phillips, the alt-pop chanteuse who made a bit of splash on those very same alt-rock stations in the late eighties and early nineties. Beginning her career as Leslie Phillips, she recorded four albums of music that was lumped in with the Contemporary Christian market. Growing disenchanted with that niche, she rechristened herself Sam and released some fine pop-rock albums well into the nineties and early aughts. Trends in radio being what they are, she largely dropped off the pop-culture map, though she had some ongoing success with her work on the television program Gilmore Girls. Her new album, Human Contact Is Never Easy is a somewhat slight affair consisting for four new songs, two live tracks and two songs from her previous album, 2013’s Push Any Button. Although it may not be a particularly deep helping of Phillip’s current output, it’s nevertheless a tasty dish.
“World on Sticks”, the percussive opening track, is a delightful showcase not only for Phillips warm alto voice but her knack for sneakily melodic songwriting. One wouldn’t think that this robust hunk of drums, woodblocks and vocal chants would wrap around your cerebral cortex so snugly yet it does and immediately invites multiple listens. “Troubles Won’t Stay” with its multi-tracked chorus and chugging acoustic guitar reminds me of nothing so much as the Beatles “Two of Us”, its upbeat message perhaps a nod to Phillips’ Contemporary Christian beginnings.
Somewhat funereal, “Candles and Stars” starts out as a solo piano piece before a string quartet softly kicks in, building into a truly delightful baroque pop masterpiece while “Walk Don’t Drive”, a lovely ode to…walking, I guess… is a short airy acoustic piece, Phillips’ vocals consisting only of crisply edited ahs and las. Not much to it, but awfully nice advertising for traipsing through a flowery copse. “When I’m Alone”, the most overtly poppy song here, is another showcase for Phillip’s melodic gift. A bouncy love song to one’s self, it’s so frothy that one hardly notices when it starts to fade out.
This modest set concludes with two live tracks from 2013 and they come as something of a palate cleanser after all the production value of the studio cuts. “If I Could Write” features Phillips with just her guitar and that much loved string quartet. “Reflecting Light”, the simplest track here, bears a passing resemblance to Linda Thompson’s “Has He Got a friend For Me” (that’s meant solely as a compliment by the way.)
While nothing here hits the heights of Phillips’ euphoric, “Holding On to the Earth”, for my nickel, one of the finest singles to come out of the eighties, Human Contact Is Never Easy makes for an excellent introduction for those who were not familiar with Sam Phillips before and a nice reminder for those looking to reconnect with her now.
Get this release at Sam’s Bandcamp site